As their time in the desert comes to a close, the Children of Israel stand on the verge of the Promised Land and Moshe teaches them a ritual which is designed to develop historical consciousness: the mitzvah of Bikkurim. The farmer, infinitely sensitive to the elements, acutely attentive to even slight changes in climate and their impact on his produce, gathers the first fruits of his year-long toil. He makes his way to the Temple in Jerusalem, fruit in hand, but not only to thank God for the produce or for the food he and his family will eat throughout the coming winter; the farmer is instructed to tell a story. The text is precise; there is no room for improvisation. All the farmers are commanded to recite the exact same declaration. It is the story of all of the Children of Israel.
And you shall speak and say before the Almighty, your God, 'Arami oved avi (regarding the meaning of this phrase, see below), and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, small in numbers, and became there a great, mighty, and populous nation; And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard slavery. And we cried to the Almighty, God of our fathers, and God heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression. And the Almighty brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders; And He has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land that flows with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which you, Almighty God, have given me.' And you shall set it before the Almighty, your God, and worship before the Almighty God. (Deuteronomy 26:5-9)
While this text is familiar to us from the Passover Seder, the Torah originally commanded us to recite this passage on Chag Habikkurim - also known asShavuot (Pentecost). The Jewish way of celebrating the harvest involves more than thanksgiving for the success of the agricultural cycle, more than personal reflection on the long, arduous year of plowing, planting, harvesting, and the myriad chores that led to the bounty that is celebrated in the Temple. The scope of the celebration is far broader than one long winter that may have been too cold, or too dry. The farmer of Israel is instructed to read a formal text which links his accomplishments all the way back to the slavery and Exodus from Egypt, and even beyond: The first three words of the formula "Arami oved avi" refer to the antecedents of the exile and the slavery.
And yet, although this formula, invoking the formative events of our national consciousness, is recited at such a critical juncture in our calendar, and preserved as a central element of our Pesach Seder, the precise meaning of the opening phrase is less clear than we might have expected. Many different interpretations are offered by the commentaries, and none is universally accepted. In fact, this phrase requires interpretation on several levels: Arami is easily translated as "Aramean", one who came from Aram (the biblical name for Mesopotamia). The second word of the phrase is far less manageable: the word oved is variously identified as an adjective, describing one who has gone astray or lost his way, or as a transitive verb describing the act of causing another's annihilation - causing another to be 'lost'. The third and final word of this phrase, avi, is translated as "my father". Essentially, the first and third words, though easily translated, are the source of the various interpretations of the phrase: Who is the Aramean in question, and which of our forefathers is invoked? The various interpretations of these two words will necessarily color the translation of the word that stands between them, oved. Additionally, we are forced to contend with the issue of context as it may or may not affect the interpretation of this phrase. Will the meaning ascribed to each of the words, and to the phrase as a whole, be different on Pesach than on Shavuot? And is the Mishnaic formula, "begin with disparagement and conclude with praise," regarding the Seder recitation indicative of the meaning of the phrase itself?
TO READ AND STUDY
First, let us consider the context. While our present parsha instructs us to recite the Arami oved avi section in the Beit HaMikdash on Shavuot, the inclusion of the Arami oved avi in the Haggada is neither arbitrary, random nor accidental. These verses were an integral part of the Pesach Seder from its very origins: The Mishna, in the Tractate Pesachim which delineates the obligations of the evening, includes the Arami oved avi. In the Pesach context, we are commanded not to just read or recite the text, but to expand and expound upon it as well.
And according to the son's intelligence his father instructs him. He commences with disparagement and concludes with praise; andexpounds from "Arami oved avi" until he completes the whole section. (Mishna Talmud Bavli Pesachim 116a)
Unlike Shavuot, where the commandment is to read the Arami oved avi verses, on Passover we are commanded to expound ("doresh") upon the verses. Adrasha is very different from a reading or recitation: in a drasha, associations are made, comparisons considered, and Torah applied. In fact, Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik1 stressed that learning Torah is, and always has been, an integral part of the Seder as a whole, and this section of Arami oved avi in particular.2Therefore, the Arami oved avi section is preceded with a quasi- Birkhat HaTorah, echoing the blessing recited before any Torah study.
The ritual prescribed for Shavuot does not involve drasha; it is not a study of the verses, it is a recitation or reading of the verses. A reading is a more formal and mechanical, less cerebral experience. This particular reading is intended to create an emotional state of joy.3 If, however, the text is "borrowed" for use on Pesach, we must assume, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, that it is intended to bring joy on this occasion as well. In other words, even though different aspects of the text are brought into focus on each of the holidays, and despite the fact that the text is used differently on each occasion, the goal is shared: On Pesach, we study the text and use it as a springboard to better comprehend and identify with leaving Egypt, while on Shavuot we recite the text to help focus our joy on having merited the Land of Israel.4 In both cases, the narrative leads us to feel tremendous joy.
Yet the Mishna points out another aspect of the use of this passage on Pesach which is somewhat curious: Our Torah study surrounding this section must begin at a negative point in our collective narrative, and end with praise, as we expound the entire section. The language of this Mishnaic formula is somewhat unclear, leaving us uncertain whether these two statements are independent of one another. In other words, is the very reading of the Arami oved avi passage a fulfillment of the commandment to "begin with disparagement and end with praise", or are we given two separate commandments to fulfill during the part of the Seder involved with Torah study - first, to expound on these verses, and second, to begin with the negative and end with the positive? The resolution of this seemingly arcane halachic point will, in fact, influence the interpretations offered by the various commentaries on the phrase Arami oved avi itself.
In his comments to the verse, the Rashbam translates the word oved as "lost": The Arami of our verse was Terach, father of Avraham, who had wandered, leaving the place of his birth. Oved is translated as an adjective, describing Terach's displaced or "lost" state.5 According to this approach, the two Mishnaic commandments, to "start with disparagement and end with praise", and the command to expound Arami oved avi, are one and the same.6
The Targum Onkelos7 deviates from his normal approach of literal translation, and reveals the identity of the "Arami": This passage refers to an old adversary last seen in Bereishit, Yaakov's wily father-in-law Lavan.8 Rashi follows this reading of the Targum.9 The phrase, then, resembles the interpretation familiar to us from the Mishnaic passage recited on the Eve of Pesach:
Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean wanted to do to Yaakov our Patriarch. For Par'oh only legislated against the males, while Lavan wished to uproot everything, as it says: Arami oved avi... (Passover Haggadah)
In the context of Parshat Ki Tavo, this passage frames the ritual of Bikkurimand sets the scope of our historical consciousness: Our forefather Yaakov was forced to flee the land of his fathers, to live in exile in Aram, where Lavan mistreated and enslaved him, even plotted to harm10 or kill him.11 Our own story of slavery and liberation, of exile and redemption, begins with the peril Yaakov faced, and the challenges he survived.12 This entire narrative is what has led to the joyous celebration of the bounty of our land, to our joyous return to the land promised to our forefathers, to our ability to celebrate the fruition of the covenant God made with Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The phrase, then, reads as follows: "An Aramean (Lavan) sought to eradicate my father (Yaakov)." This interpretation would necessarily mean that the section itself does not begin with any disparaging comments; it fulfills only one of the two independent commandments enumerated in the Mishna. Therefore, theHaggada introduces a "negative" section immediately prior to the Arami oved avi: "Our ancestors were idolators," 13 referring to Terach, father of Avraham.14
There are, however, many commentaries who are of the opinion that the subject of the Arami oved avi is neither Lavan nor Terach. They focus instead on a figure much closer to home. The Ibn Ezra, Hizkuni, Rabenu Bachya and Seforno all believe that the Arami was Yaakov, and the term oved means "destitute", for when Yaakov escaped to Aram, he left his home with nothing but the shirt on his back.15 We should note that the commentaries who offer this reading were not concerned that it is far less germane to the Pesach context. Perhaps this was why the Mishna called for a drasha of the text, an exegesis rather than a recitation: The original meaning of the text was not necessarily of a piece with the themes of the Haggadah. The commentaries were more concerned that the basic reading of the text be in line with the Shavuot ritual of the first fruits, and the theme of Yaakov's life, his progress from destitute exile to successful founder of the Nation of Israel on its homeland, is quite a powerful narrative for the celebration of the First Fruits. When the text is "borrowed" for use on Pesach, a certain amount of drash is required to bring the message into focus.
This, then, is the underlying narrative that informs our collective memory, frames our collective historical consciousness: Yaakov's wanderings began when he left the Land of Israel and made his way to Padan Aram, to his mother's hometown, to the house of his uncle Lavan, the man who later became his father-in-law. Yaakov retraced his mother's route out of Aram; he returned to the place of his grandfather and was, for that period of time, an Aramean himself. It is to this period that the verse Arami oved avi refers: Our forefather Yaakov was wandering and destitute, exiled to Aram. He was alone and vulnerable, far from the source of his physical and spiritual sustenance. He was abused and enslaved. Yet he returned to the Promised Land after having amassed great physical and spiritual wealth by the sweat of his brow and without ever losing faith in the Covenant. So, too, the exile of his children in Egypt has now come to an end: The first fruits offered up in the Beit HaMikdash are the last link in this chain. Reading this passage spreads the canvas wide; a man without a nation, a man without a homeland, a wandering pauper, is transformed into a nation enslaved, who in turn, morph into a free nation living in their own land. The farmer is far more than an individual enjoying the fruits of his labor. His joy is far greater when his own success is placed in context, and he becomes part of this great story of triumph. And as he gazes at his fellow farmers, each of whom is part of this same narrative, he sees that his family has become a great nation. They share a homeland that is acutely attentive to their prayers and responsive to their touch. At such a moment of joy, thanksgiving and love, can there be any doubt that all present also pray there will be no more wandering, no more slavery?
The Jews have come home.16 They have reclaimed their Land - and their dignity. All that remains is to rejoice in all the good that God has given us.17
1. For a collection of Rabbi Soloveitchik's teachings on the Haggadah, see http://rabbiarikahn.com/therav.html
2. See http://rabbiarikahn.com/therav.html. "Sipur Yetziat Mizrayim, simply put, is a Mitzvah of Torah Study. We are obligated to study not only the events of the Exodus, but the laws of the festival as well. The Tosefta quotes a slightly different version of the story in [that appears in the] Haggadah of the sages that were gathered in Bnai Brak and were involved all night in Sipur Yetziat Mizrayim. The Tosefta states that they were studying the laws of Pesach that night. The study of this night requires us to immerse ourselves in Torah SheBa'al Peh (Oral Law), to examine and interpret each and every word of Arami Oved Avi. This Parsha is examined not as an abstract event in the past but as something that impacts us here and now. With this approach we can understand many aspects of the structure of the Haggadah. For example, why do we introduce many of the sections with questions, such as "Matzah Zu?" Because Talmud Torah (the study of Torah) is conducted through a process of question and answer.
The Rambam says that anyone who devotes extended time to interpreting the Parsha ofArami Oved Avi is praised because this is the essence of Torah study, it is not simply a time of story telling. Even though the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah applies all year, on Pesach night there is an extra Mitzvah to study all the aspects of Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt).
3. See the Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzva 91.
4. See http://rabbiarikahn.com/therav.html. The Rav explained: "Arami Oved Avi is related to the Mitzvah of Bikurim (bringing the first fruits to the Temple). There were 2 Mitzvos associated with Bikurim: 1) the actual bringing of the Bikurim; 2) the recitation of the Parsha of Arami Oved Avi. Apparently, Chaz"al felt that there was a common denominator betweenBikurim and Sipur Yetziat Mizrayim.
The Rambam and the Chinuch explain that the main theme behind Mikra Bikurim (recitation of the text of Bikkurim) is to express gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, to Hashem who gave us the gift of the land. Hakarat Hatov is also the central theme of Sipur Yetziat Mizrayim, as we recite L'fikhach Anachnu Chayavim L'hodot ("therefore we are obligated to thank Hashem..."). In order to express thanks to Hashem for all the miracles that He performed for us, we have to tell the story of the Exodus. The gift of the land was the fulfillment of the fifth form of Geulah (Redemption), V'heveyti (and I will usher you in to the Land). The Jew is obligated to thank Hashem not only for the fulfillment of the fifth form of Redemption, but for the other 4 as well, V'hotzayti (and I will take you out of Egypt), V'hitzalti (and I will rescue you), V'goalti (and I will redeem you), V'lokachti (and I will take you unto me as a nation), which refer to the events of the exodus.
The obligation to thank Hashem as part of Mikra Bikurim is equated with the obligation to thank Hashem for the Exodus on the night of Pesach. If the Torah formulated the Parsha ofArami Oved Avi as the proper format to express gratitude to Hashem for the Exodus and the gift of the land, then the Parsha must be recited in both cases, on the night of Pesach and upon bringing Bikurim. However, there is a difference in emphasis between the 2 recitations. For Mikra Bikurim, we stress the aspect of having been brought into the land and receiving it as a gift, while for Sipur Yetziat Mizrayim, we focus on the aspects surrounding our enslavement and redemption from Egypt.
5. Rashbam, on Devarim 26:5.
6. In the Talmud (Pesachim 116a) we find a debate between Rav and Shmuel as to what the "disparagement" is - the idolatry of our ancestors, or our enslavement.
7. This tradition is also found in the Sifri Ki Tavo Piska 301.
8. Targum Unkolus Devarim 26:5.
9. Rashi, ibid., follows this approach.
10. See Rabi Eliezer Mizrachi Sefer Maaseh Hashem, who claims that Lavan did not wish to kill Yaakov, rather he wished to convert him. Also see Rabbi Avraham of Slonim in his Yesod Havoda 2:10 for a similar statement.
11. While the text does not explicitly state that Lavan tried to kill Yaakov, he did chase Yaakov down, at which point God interceded and instructed him to be careful how he speaks to Yaakov (Bereshit 31:24), Lavan then says to Yaakov "it is my hand to hurt you, but God spoke with me..." (31:29). It can be deduced that he had in mind to harm Yaakov. See Chizkuni 31:29.
12. The Ben Yehodaya commentary to Talmud Bavli Sotah 32b points out that the nefarious deed perpetuated by Lavan - switching Rachel for Leah, planted the seeds of envy and jealousy which eventually led to the sale of Yosef and the Egyptian exile.
13. In the Haggadah the proof text offered is from the Book of Joshua.
14. The Malbim (D'varim 26) suggests that the negative section is the "Covenant of the Pieces," when Avraham was told of the impending exile.
15. Ibn Ezra ibid.
16. See Rav Yitzchak Karo, Toldot Yitzchak, Devarim Chapter 26.
17. This essay is dedicated to my wife Naomi in celebration of 25 years of marriage, and 25 years together in the Land of Israel.